Career Discombobulation

23 Oct

DISCLAIMER: If you’re looking for useful ELT content, look no further.  Seriously, stop reading now.


Stewing in the stew

Some big changes are on the horizon in my own little ELT world, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to write a blog post, have a quick self-indulgent reflection, and start thinking about the future.  First, I’d like to quickly say that this will likely be my last post on ELT Stew.  I know that this will come as a shock to the many who already assumed the blog was defunct, but for those few of you who still enjoy my bi-annual posts, thank you for reading and commenting over the past few years – joining the online ELT community here has made a huge difference to my professional development, teaching, and overall career satisfaction.  How else would I have met @Michaelegriffin, @Scott Thornbury, or learnt about intestinal-distress-based learning?

I should also say that this blog, along with many of my ELT endeavours, was a direct result chris-beer-hatof my friendship with one teacher, so it’s only fitting I mention him here.  In fact, I think it’s fair to say that my begrudging admiration for (and envy of) @ChrisOzog’s enthusiasm, motivation, and general geekery have been a driving force across a few different continents now.  Whether starting a blog, getting involved with Dogme research, or planning imaginary Panamanian schools, I’m not sure I’d be where I am without his random decision to come to Costa Rica.  In return, I taught him how to lose gracefully at pool (guided-discovery) and forced him to be a Calgary Flames fan – hardly seems a fair trade.  Yep, that’s him with his erudition on display.


Let’s blow this popsicle stand[1]

More important than leaving this neglected blog, at the end of the year I am also leaving International House where I’ve been for the last 10 years.  Although stops in Dubai and Vancouver have been great in completely different ways, the mainstay of my IH experience was at IH Costa Rica, aka the Instituto Británico.  During those 6.5 years, I went from a confused and flailing 24-year-old to a slightly less-confused 30-year-old with a wife, dogs, and amazing friends.  I couldn’t find a pithy pic that included everyone (can a pic be pithy?), so instead here is the greatest garden in the history of language schools, where I somehow met Andrea, Jon, Ana, Mark, Bernardo, Chris, Carlos, and so many others.  RIP el Instituto.  Also, a gif of me jumping into the Costa Rican abyss – seemed fitting somehow.



Back to school

So why am I leaving the comforting confines of IH considering all they have given me?  Well for one, I have been lucky so far never to have suffered from teacher burnout.  Fed up at times, sure, perplexed by humans, often, but I’ve never felt the urge to leave ELT.  And I’d like to keep it that way, before CELTA-saturation occurs (I can feel twinges already).  Also, even if I do make millions in ELT (joke), this is what 2.4 million dollars can buy you in Vancouver these days (not a joke), so it might be time for a move.

Now there are lots of directions I could go which would add some variety, including teaching more, writing more, Delta-ing more, etc.  But, given that I am a genuine geek and spend my commute reading articles about corpora and listening to podcasts about the etymology of ‘discombobulate’, I thought a bit of academia might suit me.  Plus I hear the dental benefits for professors are better than for freelance teachers.

Ten PhD applications, dozens of cringe-worthy personal essays, and several hundred dollars later, I’ve done everything I can do and am sitting patiently by my phone (an idiom that makes very little literal sense anymore).  Of course, on the highly likely chance that no reputable university jumps to give me an amazing funding package, I’ll be hitting the streets to rustle up some interesting ELT work.  Feel free to send me overly-generous offers.  Seriously.


Baby steps and Thank-yous

To distract you from the horror of the noun phrase above, I present you with my daughter doing her best impression of my new career – part curious, part nervous, and relying heavily on my wife’s support (pics of cute babies and beautiful women = blogging 101!).

Mia and Andre.jpg

As for my own first steps into the world of academia, I’m very happy to share that I have an article in an upcoming volume of English Language Teaching Journal (ELT-J)With the totally un-mysterious title of ‘Integrating Corpus Tools on Intensive CELTA Courses’, it doesn’t need much description here, but it is available online now and in print in July.  Do please check it out if you get a chance.

Since there is no space in the journal to acknowledge anyone, I’d just like to quickly say a massive thank you to everyone who contributed in some way, especially the trainees for volunteering to take part, my co-tutors Tillat Khalid and Michael Newby for taking fieldnotes, professor Nur Kurtoglu-Hooton for encouraging me to pursue this research, and my insanely talented editing team of Chris Ożóg, Nick Wimshurst, Martyn Williams, and the anonymous reviewers at ELT-J.  No financial compensation for any of you I’m afraid, but I’m happy to pay in gratitude and beer.

Ok, with all that said, the official countdown is on, so if anyone has any feedback, suggestions or general life advice for 2017, I could really use it about now (especially if you happen to be a university dean, journal editor, or wealthy linguistics-minded philanthropist).  Who knows, if I’m lucky, maybe I’ll get to start another blog about my new PhD struggles.  More likely, it will be an anonymous homage to English Droid – Rinvoludicrous lives!


[1] No connotations of disrespect intended, I just love out-of-date slang.


Material-phobic Support Group

20 Oct

Disclaimer: Material design really isn’t my thing.  I prefer material-light tasks and I’m not very creative when it comes to material ideas.  Instead, I try to just build up a large mental bank of flexible task types and activities that I can use in all kinds of situations.  There are many amazing material designers out there and I’m happy to rely on their excellent work when I need resources.

With all that said, once in a while I do make a little something.  On my CELTA courses, I like for the tutors to actually teach most of the required ‘observation of experienced teachers’ component.  This is probably a topic for another post sometime, but one consequence is that I think quite a lot about what the trainees will be seeing and what will be most useful for them at different stages of the course.  So while I often have a Dogme or TBL lesson in the latter stages to show alternative approaches/methodologies, on Day 1, I like to have some material as the basis, much like the support they’ll be able to use in their own lessons.

In any case, somehow someone (aka Chris Ożόg) put some of my rare original material up on the IH journal blog.  A big thanks to a CELTA trainee from back in the day who inspired this lesson (I told you I wasn’t creative), Rusty Wienk – I love when trainees go on to bigger and better things in ELT and could end up as my boss one day.

Here’s the link to the journal: If anyone else has any lesson ideas to add, I’m sure Chris would be grateful.

Ok, enough about worksheets.  Maybe the next post will be about CELTA Dogme demos instead.

P.S. Since I also can’t think of any creative image or video to suit this mini-post, here’s a never-ending loop of the rooster from Robin Hood whistling – enjoy!


18 Jun

So… apparently movies in the Marvel ‘Cinematic Universe’ have grossed over $3,400,745,593 dollars. That’s 3.4 b-b-b-billion for 11 movies with a whole slate of follow-up on-screen bombast en route to complete their cinematic world subjugation. Not too shabby eh?

I’d argue though that the studio masterminds have left money on the table by overlooking a key figure in their comic book source material, the 1980’s anti-hero Taskmaster!!! Intent on “[training] a large number of thugs at criminal academies”, Taskmaster was a superhero and a teacher! True, he never went much into humanistic language pedagogy, but not all super teachers can start pseudo-scientific Hungarian cults.


I’ll admit, I’d never heard of Taskmaster until I googled the word a few minutes ago, but I can relate to the idea of a task-setting obsessive. It definitely doesn’t get into any of the deeper truths about language learning, but it still amazes me that the success of a lesson can hinge on whether learners have actually understood the tasks. That’s probably why a few years ago one of my first posts ever was about ICQs, and somehow, that post still gets more hits than almost any other (which doesn’t say much for my improvement as a writer!). Back then, I was railing against pointless instruction checking questions, and a few dozen CELTA courses later I’m still not a huge fan.

A few months ago though I decided to dig a bit deeper and see what actually does work in terms of helping students to come to grips with activities. Here, the concept of ‘instructional scaffolding’ was helpful, covering all kinds of support structures like checking questions, visual support, examples and demonstrations, gestures, etc. (Applebee and Langer, 1983).

With the kind permission of my Celtees, I made a note of every instruction given, the type of scaffolding used, and whether or not teacher intervention and repair was then needed. I even recorded a few samples for good measure. Four weeks, a bunch of pretty graphs, and one excessively long paper later, I came to a couple of simple conclusions:

1)  Instructional scaffolding works:

Pretty ground-breaking stuff, I know. Basically, looking at both the numbers and transcripts, it seems that no matter how you do it, providing some kind of support for instructions leads to better comprehension. This was true even when taking into consideration the type of task and the quality of the scaffolding, e.g. clear, unchecked instructions vs. garbled, checked instructions. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this!

Types of scaffolding used and subsequent repair


Between the three most common support types, there was not much difference in either usage or apparent effectiveness in comparison to when there was no support.  However, these stats are a bit misleading as Visual support was never used in isolation.

2)  Combinations of instructional scaffolds work best

More importantly in terms of being able to help my trainees, there was pretty compelling evidence that combinations of instructional scaffolds are more likely to ensure task comprehension than any instructional scaffold used in isolation. Although just asking ICQs or doing a demo worked some of the time, when used in combinations there was a massive improvement in task understanding. In fact, although it might seem excessive, when there was a demo or example, an ICQ, and some sort of visual, the learners understood 100% of the time on the course, no matter which of the eight trainees was teaching. At the other end of the spectrum, one or no scaffolds led to repair between 70% and 100% of the time.

Combinations of Scaffolds Used and Subsequent Repair


Of course, all the usual caveats apply – specific context, small sample, only one course, etc. Still, it was interesting to put intuition to the test and to gain a little evidence that may help future teachers trying to effectively set tasks.

Like with past blog posts about projects of little interest to all but a strange few, feel free to contact me for the complete paper full of thrilling facts, methodology, and figures. As well, if anyone has had a different experience in their teaching/training context, it would be great to hear about it as there are a lot of questions still to answer – does it make a difference if they are new or experienced teachers? The length of time the teacher has had the group? The cultural context?

More importantly, when will Taskmaster be coming to a theatre near me?


Applebee, A. and J. Langer. 1983. ‘Instructional scaffolding: Reading and writing as natural language activities’. Language Arts, 60/2.

Richards, J.C. and T. Rodgers.  2001.  Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Down a reflective rinvoludicrous rabbit hole…

30 Jan

(If you haven’t read the EnglishDroid Rinvolucri interview, read that instead of this!)

Final week of another CELTA course, and not surprisingly, the ol’ mental acuity might be slipping a bit. Time for an inner-grammatical biscuit!

Cookie monsterIf you’ve ever seen a trainee after they finish their final observed lesson, you might be surprised to find out that they aren’t quite as keen to soak up detailed oral feedback from their peers or tutors as in previous lessons.[1] To combat this pandemic, some tutors get creative with the observation tasks, a common one being for the peers observing to draw a picture representing the lesson: a happy meal, something abstract, a train wreck, etc. (thanks Jamie King, Brigid Nugent).

But is this going far enough? Last year, a timid Russian candidate decided that she wasn’t into drawing and instead created her own observation task – selecting what kind of dog breed best represented each candidate’s lesson and why. We had a poodle, a German shepherd, and I think a Labrador – Inspired!

Ugly dog

So for the last couple of courses, for the final day’s lessons, I’ve let trainees create their own equally random observation tasks. To date:

– Blank verse poetry

– Feedback set to Russian lullabies and military marches

– A map

– A flow chart (exciting!)

– Deciding the type of animal the lesson represented

– Deciding the type of food the lesson represented

– Haikus

– Drawing the type of dinosaur the lesson represented

– Drawing the type of crime the lesson represented

Not a massive list, but it’s produced some great feedback. Although, some of it’s been more funny than helpful, there has also been some really aware and insightful justifications for the choices. Granted, the drawing of New Brunswick flooded by a sea of blood and pigs was a bit arbitrary, but never mind. Proof once again that specific tasks and parameters can get the creative juices flowing.

If anyone else out there is dealing with peer observations, let me know if you have any equally random or trainee generated tasks (or conversely if you just think this is a massive waste of time)! I’ll try to start scanning and uploading some of my favourites too to add to the collection.

[1] Should be pointed out, they still get detailed written feedback which I’m sure they cherish and savour later.

Blog like a boss

30 Sep

Saturday Night Live just turned 40 and I may or may not have gone down a rabbit hole of Will Ferrell amazingness  and Andy Samberg songs (the video below – NSFW!).  Although Andy probably didn’t have ELT blogging in mind when he composed it, I take inspiration from wherever I can get it, especially living in Dubai.

In any case, after spending far too many hours on an MSc paper on discourse analysis of ELT blogs, I came up with a 6500-word monstrosity (you can email me if you’re a masochistic applied linguist looking for some light holiday reading). If you just want a quick synopsis of the findings though and are curious what luminaries @thornburyscott, @hughdellar, @teflerinha, and @Harmerj have in common, then read on!

The stars of the show

First, a big thank you to Scott, Hugh, Rachael and Jeremy for (unknowingly) providing the texts for my mini-corpus – good ol’ public interwebs. In any case, I only used bloggers with sizable followings, a large number of posts, and who also have published materials in other ELT genres.

It’s a genre I tell you (ok, maybe a sub-genre)

Although much of my academic rambling had to do with specific genre features of ELT blogs, suffice to say that all these blogs have a lot in common in terms of field (context, content, etc.), tenor (discourse community), and mode, as well intertextuality and the inherent structure of blogs.

How to do it

For me, perhaps the most interesting part was the consistency of the communicative ‘moves’ of the different authors. If someone was to ask me how to write an ELT blog (hey, it could happen), this is what I’d tell them:

1) Capture their attention with the title

Whether it’s humour, alliteration, or a question to the audience, make sure the title is catchy. My personal favourite from the corpus was Harmer’s “What the Dickens!” – I’m always going to read that one.


2) Create interest using multi-media

Ok, you’ve got the reader’s attention, now time to seal the deal. No one cares about words these days, so better whack in a picture, cartoon or video to liven up the text! Rachael gets my nod of approval for her pond full of floating rubber ducks.


3) Tell a personal anecdote

Now the reader’s hooked, but you don’t want to scare them off with cold ELT talk. Better warm them up with a little story. A tangentially related personal anecdote seems to be the safest bet, but if you don’t leave your ELT cave very often, then a current event will do in a pinch. The winner for this category is Scott who combines personal travel and current events with this opening line: “As the sign suggests, with the passing of the same-sex marriage bill, it’s been a good time to be gay in New York.”


4) Provide information/opinion on topic of interest to the ELT community

There’s no more delaying it – time to hit them with the heavy stuff. Luckily for you, if you’re writing an ELT blog, there’s not much chance of a non-ELT audience ever coming across your post. Too many good ones to choose a favourite for this move – there’s a reason I read these blogs!


5) Appeal to authority

It may be a personal blog, but a little back up never hurts. References to your own/others’ published work, informal work, and corpora should all do the trick.

6) Prompt or ask a question to finish

This ain’t no stuffy article, this is a blog post godammit. If you want some interaction you need to go out and get it, preferably after you’ve finished pontificating. You can either go for the direct question, What new talks are you working on?” or the not-so-subtle hypothetical, “I’d be very interested to hear any comments…”

7) Link up to the community (this move can occur at any time)

Of course, since the internet lets you link to other ELTers’ output, you should probably crank the connections up to 11. Why not link to #ELTchat, other bloggers’ posts, or even to some new fancy app if you’re that way inclined (not that there’s anything wrong with it).

8) Interact with the ELT community

At this point all your hard work should have paid off and the comments and adulation are rolling in. Now you can just sit back, thank everyone for stopping by, and have a chat with your PLN friends. Good times.

Exception to prove the rule?

Interestingly, to start I had collected texts from Adrian Underhill’s amazing pronunciation blog and had noticed that his posts didn’t typically follow the move sequence. His texts were later cut from the research as he didn’t have enough followers (outrageous!), which brings up the question: is his blog less popular because he doesn’t follow the typical conventions? Ok, so it probably has more to do with his lack of a twitter account, but if I can’t draw dubious conclusions from my own tiny sample size, what’s the point of doing research?

Hmm… looking back at this post, it seems I’ve forgotten about move #6, so if anyone has any more ELT blog examples that confirm/refute this move sequence, please let me know below. Cheers.

Listen to who?

4 May

I love student output. Discussions, presentations, debates, stories – you name it, I’m into it (assuming it’s meaningful to the people speaking). I listen, comment, scribble notes, think of ways to extend it, all that good stuff.

Sometimes though, after a group has carefully prepared and practiced an amazing presentation for the class, it doesn’t seem like their peers are as enthralled as I am. Fair enough considering they are worrying about their own turns, can’t really hear their colleagues, or just aren’t that interested in what they have to say. Still, I’d like them to be more engaged, and since I spend quite a lot of time these days thinking about task design, you’d think I’d have some amazing, innovative ways to capture their attention. Sadly, this isn’t the case, so I’m turning to the ol’ blogosphere to see if anyone can help out.



Here are a few ideas to get the ball rolling which have worked for me, but nothing spectacular, so I’m really hoping for a comment or two (come on you TBL/Dogme aficionados, this should be right up your alley):

–          Peers write questions to ask about the presentation – my usual go-to, this one is a classic for a reason – it’s simple to set up, works with any topic, and can be managed at any level.

Downside? Pretty dull if this is only the ever peer-listening task.


–          Test the expert – nearly identical to the one above, but with a bit more of a game-like element. Instead of asking questions directly about the presentation, peers try to come up with tricky questions related to the topic to try to stump ‘the expert’.

Downside? Only works if the presenters are fairly familiar with the topic they are talking about.


–          Summary tasks – rather than asking questions, peers are asked to do some kind of summary task, anything from write a one-sentence summary, one paragraph, 3 interesting facts, etc.

Downside? Not particularly personal or interactive.


–          Artistic tasks – for the more open-minded classes, you can ask them to draw a picture of either the whole presentation or specific elements. These drawings can then be used for guessing games/explanations after the presentation.

Downside? Definitely not a task that suits everyone’s tastes.


–          Prompts – these can sometimes be a good way to get feedback on a presentation. Sentence stems for example, like I never knew that…, can help to get the learners focused and lead to a more fruitful and specific feedback session.   Other prompts cold include charts to fill in, categorization tasks, etc.

Downside? By itself it doesn’t stimulate any interaction and not all prompts are appropriate for every presentation.


–          Student-made comprehension tasks – for the more attentive groups, one option is for them to create comprehension tasks based upon what they’ve heard (true/false, questions, multiple-choice, etc.). These can then be given to other groups to complete while the presenters confirm/deny the answers.

Downside? Possibly overly challenging for some levels


–          Agree/Disagree tasks – students can write a specified number of things that they agree or disagree with the presenter about. These can then be used to stimulate discussions, debate, or can be used as part of a guessing game (who said it? Did they agree or disagree? Etc.)

Downside? Depending on the presentation, this task may not be applicable.


So, there are a few simple peer listening tasks that I’ve tried out. These are all material free and adaptable since that tends to be what I like, but I’m open to trying out all kinds of new ideas. Now, what have you got for me?



Follow the leader (and become a supreme leader!)

30 Dec

Kim Jong UnLeader, leadership, be a leader, become a leader, leaders in the classroom, better leaders, leader leader leader.

You know when you say a word so many times that it ceases to have all meaning?  For me this has been happening a lot recently, to the point I feel like I’m hanging out at a North Korean pep rally.  At conferences, talking to teachers, at workshops, online, here in Dubai everyone seems to want to be a leader, whatever that means.  But what really set me off on this ridiculous rant was the following teacher training and education discussion thread:

Leader discussion2


Apart from the fact that the second question presumes an answer to the first one, what are they on about?  Why can’t teachers be seen as teachers?

If you want to argue that by ‘leader’ everyone is actually talking about being a guide and helping learners along the path, then I can reluctantly get on board with this metaphor.  But it seems to me that when people bandy about the word ‘leader’, the most common connotations have to do with power, strength, and taking control.  Just take a look at the most common collocates for either the British or American corpora and you can see that all of the top collocations have to do with politics and power.

I would never relegate the role of the teacher to that of just a passive bystander and firmly believe in the need to get involved, demand-high, and really push learners to stretch themselves.  But striving for the ideal goal of supreme leadership seems to run counter to responsive teaching, promoting learner autonomy and negotiated learning.

Wouldn’t all this energy be better spent focusing on ways to help learners and improve teaching?

To be fair, I never noticed this trend while teaching in other countries, so maybe it’s a local mania.  Anyone else have any experience dealing with this?

P.S. If you are ever interested in giving a conference talk in Dubai and really want to be popular, just call your talk iPad leadership

Condemner or Condemned

13 Oct

If you ever visit IH Dubai in the afternoon, there’s a good chance you’ll stumble into a round of ‘Guess that Collocation’.  Someone shouts out a random word, everyone guesses the most common collocation, and then we check the COCA or BNC corpus.  What can I say, we really know how to party.

Anyways, one day someone picked condemn. I think the best guess was violence which came in at about #5, but what was really surprising came a little further down the list: homosexual at #23 and homosexuality at #35.  So, when it came time to write a paper for the lexis module of my MSc, I decided to do a little more investigating.  I won’t bore you with research methods or tables of corpus search results[1], but here are a few trends that I found interesting:


PolFinger wagitics

Politicians love to condemn.  Condemn other parties, condemn other governments, condemn the terrorists – if someone/something needs condemning, they’re the ones to turn to.  And if it’s not them condemning, it’s the media reporting the politicians.  Just take a look at some of the top collocates:

–          War: attack, bombing, violence, terrorism

–          Politics: resolution, motion, Clinton, government

–          Other nations: Israel, Palestine, Iran, Iraq



Of course, if you really want some good ol’ fashioned moral judgment, nothing beats religion.  In fact, the two sub-genres where condemn occurred most frequently were religious magazines for the US and sermons for the UK.  Not surprisingly, there were a number of obvious religious collocates, including church, bible, and cleric to the left of the verb, and homosexuality and suicide to the immediate right.  What I found most fascinating was that these common collocates only occurred in the COCA corpus and not in the BNC.  This raises a number of questions:

Do Americans condemn more for religious reasons than the British?

Do American politicians incorporate more religion into their political platforms?  If so, is it mostly the right wing?

Does the American media merely report this or do they actively condemn as well?

Is the anti-gay movement really that strong in the US or is it just rhetoric from both sides on the issue of homosexuality?

Although I try to put forward my own hypotheses in my paper, I think I’ll just leave the questions here for others to mull over.  Interestingly as well, even the Webster dictionary (US) includes the term ‘moral judgment’ in its primary definition while Collins (UK) only talks about disapproval and censure.


Condemner or Condemned

As seen, whether the collocate search is for words to the left or right of the Condemn makes a huge impact on the results.  On the left, we can see agents who are doing the condemning, typically depersonalized entities, the law, the government, the bible, the UN, etc.  It seems that usually when someone wants to condemn somebody else, it’s better to hide behind the moral weight of a faceless powerful force.  Even when this isn’t the case, the passive voice is also often used – apparently personally condemning is distasteful!


Overall, I have to admit – I didn’t actually enjoy doing corpus research and may leave this particular field to other more qualified and enthusiastic people.  What I do find fascinating are the trends that emerge from this kind of work and I’ll definitely be continuing to read others’ papers.  If you come across anything similar, please do let me know and post a link.

[1] If anyone has a perverse desire to see the whole paper, just send me a private message.

(Apparently) Inappropriate quotations

25 Aug

Last week I was asked (i.e. told) to write a piece for the local paper, Gulf News.  The topic? Choose a suitably motivating educational quotation and write 400-500 words about it. 

Off I set, rummaging through my notebook of favourite quotations that I keep (don’t ask why) and came up with a few that I thought would be great.  And… they were all rejected.  Shocking, I know.  Judge for yourself:


Here is a lesson in creative writing.  First rule: Do not use semicolons.  They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. (Vonnegut)


You like the mind to be a neat machine, equipped to work efficiently, if narrowly, and with no extra bits or useless parts.  I like the mind to be a dustbin of scraps of brilliant fabrics, odd gems, worthless but fascinating curiosities, tinsel, quaint bits of carving, and a reasonable amount of healthy dirt.  Shake the machine and it goes out of order; shake the dustbin and it adjusts itself beautifully to its new position. (Davies)


You can read subtexts even in a traffic sign that says ‘No littering’.  “Of course.  Catharist moralism.  The horror of fornication.” (Eco)


“What am I doing? I am raising my arm.  What is he doing? He is raising his arm…” It was like being a champion at tennis, and condemned to play with rabbits, as well as having always to get their wretched balls out of the net for them. (Fowles)


Human speech is like a cracked cauldron on which we bang out tunes that make bears dance, when what we want is to move the stars to pity. (Flaubert)


A failure to attend to the qualitative semantics of a preposition can have tragic consequences.


Her younger self, disrespectful of books, had made a number of marks: underlinings, ticks in the margins, exclamations, multiple queries. (Rushdie)


He may have been equally surprised to know that he was speaking ‘grammar’, for example, or that he was pronouncing ‘phonemes’, of that he was producing ‘discourse’. (Thornbury)


So, in the end, I settled for a simpler little literary nugget from Frank O’Connor.  Below is the piece, mostly about my reservations with technology and learner autonomy.  I could easily argue against my own case, but I’ll leave that for another day (or for other people)


They were the type I had looked up to for years and I like looking up to people; it gives me a sense of direction.

 Frank O’Connor 1961, ‘An Only Child’


As sometimes (ok, quite often) happens to me, I giggled involuntarily on the metro while reading my kindle.  The reason?  The line above from Frank O’Connor’s excellent autobiography.  However, unlike most of the reading material which makes me laugh inappropriately in public, this one line stuck with me.  I’ll admit that I like a good pun, but what really got me thinking was the inherent truth in his statement and how it applies to what I do.

As an EFL teacher (English as a Foreign Language) who is reasonably active in my professional community, I am constantly being exposed to different ideas, beliefs, and methodologies regarding education.  One common trend these days seems to be to encourage learner autonomy; that is, the ability for learners to take control and responsibility of their own learning.  A noble goal indeed, but what does this mean for the teacher?  Skimming through conference schedules, this principle is most commonly embodied in terms of new technologies: “1001 ways for students use an iPad!”, “E-learning in the 23rd century!”, or “Flipping the classroom – let the students take control!”  Now, although I might sound like a grumpy old man, I’m actually a big fan of technology, especially when used judiciously in the classroom.  What does concern me though is one often ignored repercussion of maximum technological learner autonomy: the lack of educational role-models.

I may have been exaggerating, but some of my clearest memories from school are tied directly to inspirational teachers.  It’s not a stretch to say that my career choices stem directly from my interactions with my high school English and Music teachers.  I looked up to them, and greatly admired their passion, knowledge and work.  Because of them, I was exposed to a wealth of music and literature which profoundly changed my life for the better.  In a very real sense, I was dependent on them for input and guidance (the opposite of an autonomous learner), and as a result, I would argue, the narrowed focus of my studies greatly deepened my appreciation and knowledge of the subject matter.

Clearly, autonomous learning and amazing, influential teachers are not mutually exclusive, with young learners everywhere continuing to be inspired by their professors.  But perhaps in our zeal for all things new and shiny, we are neglecting a valuable human resource – the teacher as teacher.   Perhaps I’m just out of touch, but without teachers to provide O’Connor’s “sense of direction” in education, who will?  The internet? The media? You tube?  I would say, let’s keep promoting learner autonomy, but without forgetting to also provide figures to look up to.

Something seems to be missing from my Applied Linguistics MSc…

16 Apr

(Hint: it’s not the linguistics)Halliday

I like to think that I’m as into linguistics and theory as much as the next geeky EFL teacher, but the last few months have seriously made me reconsider.  To start, I was super excited to begin my MSc at a well-known British university, and although I had never taken a long online course, I’ve always worked well by myself.  First module: Grammar.

Here is the ongoing conversation with my own psyche over the past few months as I tried to justify and wrap my mind around what I was doing:

Grammar to start?

So far, so good – I know my grammar. 

Wait, Systemic Functional Grammar is something completely different? 

No problem, a new perspective for looking at language – this will be great.

Ok, so this seems like a ton of new terminology, differing between authors…

Shhh brain, I’m trying to figure out if this embedded clause has a mental process of cognition with a circumstance of contingency/behalf or not.

So, um… how exactly is this going to help your teaching?

Well, greater awareness…mumblemumble…different perspectives…tell you later

Great, we’ve completed half the course!  I wonder what other grammatical perspectives we’re going to see!

Yeah, forgot to tell you, SFG is the only grammar we’re looking at.  Noam who?

Yes, final paper completed!  5000 word commentary, another 4000 words in analyses.  Time to reflect on how this is applicable to my future career.

I wouldn’t do that if I were you…

Shut up brain, I’m writing a blog post about it.

To be fair, this was only the first of several modules, so the ‘applied’ in my applied linguistics may well come later.  And I do realize that teaching/teacher training is only one of the many fields in which the knowledge can be applied.  In fact, this is one of the reasons I chose not to do an MA TESOL, as I do like theory and am interested in seeing applications of linguistics and other possible career avenues.

So, if anyone could help me out by explaining how my new-found SFG knowledge can be applied in the real world, it would honestly be much appreciated.

Next up: lexis.